The highway project “Hekmeh-Turk” axis, also know as the Fouad Boutros highway, was planned in the 1950’s, as part of the “Ecochard” master plan. That master plan organised the urbanisation of central Beyrouth and its suburbs, in terms of building heights, density and function. It also planned for the creation of urban highways (also known as freeways or expressways) all across and around Beirut. Most of the urban highways we see today, like Charles Malek, Alfred Naccache, Charles Helou, Independance, Bechara el-Khoury, the Ring Road, etc. were planned in the masterplan and were executed in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. These urban highways, whose efficiency is today widely discredited, did cut through entire pre-existing neighborhoods, causing immense damage to the historic city fabric and contributed to fragment the city by seperating areas from each other and cutting neighborhoods in pieces.
It is important to insist that everywhere in the world, such urban highways are labelled as counterproductive, detrimental to urban life and only bring more cars within the city, which is also detrimental to the fluidity of traffic. They encourage cars to go into the city-centres and tend to displace traffic jams from one place to another by transfering massive flows. These express ways belong to a different period, when the car was thought to be the one and only mode of transportation, according to now obsolete urban principles. (More details about these facts are posted in the “Traffic Impact” part of the blog).
Today, many cities in the world are demolishing the urban highways and freeways that they have built at huge costs between the 1950’s and 1970’s. The urban and transporation principles on which they were based are today discredited, known to be detrimental to urban development, land value, public health, life quality and pedestrian accessibility. They are seen as mistakes, that were being demolished and dismantled everywhere in the world : In Paris, London, Portland, San Francisco, New York, Seoul, Madrid, Seatle, and many many more. How ridiculous, anachronistic and absurd to build on now, agaisnt every single principle of contemporary urban planning?
Websites describing the removal of urban highways all around the world :
6 freeway removals that changed their cities forevers
Mort annoncée des autoroutes urbaines
Pour en finir avec les autoroutes urbaines
The highway scheme is outdated, it was designed back in the 1960s, at the time when highways crossing the city were commonly implemented. 50 years later, our understanding of transportation as urban planners has been radically transformed. In 2013, no one with their full mind designs a highway to cross a residential neighborhood this way. – Mona Fawaz, urban planner
The proposed highway is an obsolete plan from the 1960s… when the population and geographic spread of the city was less than half what is it now. It was intended to link the port with the planned Arab Highway (road to Damascus). The plan was later replaced by the highway implemented in the late 1990s along the Beirut River. It works very well.
Implementing this obsolete Fouad Boutros link now is political nonsense. Apart from decimating an entire neighborhood, it will notsolve traffic problems, but will rather bring in more cars into Achrafieh.
Abdul-Halim Jaber, architect and urban designer
It has been globally acknowledged that the construction of “highway-wide” streets, in effort to decongest traffic, only attracts more cars and causes denser interlock traffic jams. Most cities today have found that if they reduce the numbers of highways and narrow their roadways, traffic congestion problems diminish. Alternately, we still carry the same 1960’s mentality by which everything we do is related to the car. We eradicate neighborhoods and strong community ties for the sake of creating tunnels, bridges and ramps we cannot afford. This practice has and continues to incrementally reduce pedestrian footpath and mobility, and fragment Beirut till nothing of enduring value remains.
Abir Al-Tayeb, urban designer, architect
Here is an open letter to Bilal Hamad, President of the Beirut Municipality, by an Ecochard expert: Hashim Sarkis (Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism in Muslim Societies at Harvard Graduate School of Design)
From: Michel Ecochard (1905-1985)
To: Dr. Bilal Hamad, President of Beirut Municipality
Dear Dr. Hamad:
It is said that people die twice, once when their bodies are buried, and another time when their names are no longer mentioned. I write, almost thirty years after my first death, to demand the right for my second.
Every time an urban crime is committed against your city, my name is evoked as an authority that should not be questioned. When the building code requires that you set buildings back the streets, and you destroy the continuity of the street, you say, it was Ecochard’s idea. Truly, I was behind the idea of allowing the breezes to flow between buildings and into the streets, but that was not to be done at the expense of the livelihood of the streets or to use these setback areas for parking. Look at how well these ideas were implemented in Damascus and how well the Abou Remmaneh neighborhood has aged.
I did submit a plan for Beirut in the early 1960s which included many of the highways you are planning to build today, but remember my plan was in part to protect the historic city (now also destroyed) and to create a modern city next to it as a way to absorb the growth and to avoid congestion. Certain parts of the old city had to be sacrificed but these were at that time understood to be replaceable. This was one of the mistakes of my generation. Admittedly, my generation and I made many mistakes.
For one, no historic building is replaceable. When you destroy a building, it is gone. When a society decides that it values a part of its heritage then you should respectfully accept these values, debate them if necessary, but not destroy them. And don’t let the architects hide their complicity in these crimes by covering up new buildings with historical facades that resemble the old ones. This is worse than the crime itself.
When it comes to building and not plans, my legacy in the region has fared much better. The restoration of the Azem Palace in Damascus, and the modern addition to the palace, prove that preservation and modernization are not incompatible. The College Protestant building in Beirut also shows that modern architect can integrate well with its urban environment. By now, many cities around the world have reconciled their desire to protect their heritage with the need for modernization and the pressures of development. There are solutions out there that have proven to work. You have no excuses.
And then there were other mistakes. I thought that as an urban planner, I had all the answers to the problems of the city. I thought urbanism was a science and that science had better answers than a democratic process. I also trusted the transportation engineers a bit too much when deciding how the city should be planned. Today, I would consider quality of movement to be far more important than quantity. Quantity of roads is what is creating the traffic.
I also made the mistake of not working hard enough to dissociate my name from this infamous master plan. Such stains are hard to remove and Beirut may very well have denied me the right to a second death. I am ready to take the blame and to live (or die) with infamy forever if you listen to your citizens, protect the old houses of Mar Mikhael and stop this by-now-ridiculously-obsolete bridge project. You know better. Beirut, or whatever is left of it, deserves better.
Michel Ecochard / Hashim Sarkis